By Isaac Massaquoi
In his statement the IMC AWARDS of 2010,the President of the President of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, SLAJ, Umaru Fofana called on media workers not to ignite another civil war in Sierra Leone by what they say on radio or publish in newspapers.
I was among a handful of journalists who suggested to him, that he had just exaggerated a perfectly manageable situation which is not in any way unique to Sierra Leone. We had a small argument about the issues that informed his statement but I left the ceremony thinking he probably truly had his fingers on the pulse of the nation and the media environment.
Fast-forward now to March 2012 and you begin to see the reason for what at the time looked like a desperate call by a war general for his troops to hold fire and not commit war crimes.
Look around Freetown today and seen how many newspapers are published daily, listen to the many radio stations all over the country. You are confronted by an industry that has grown beyond recognition in size, scope and power. Consuming media products on the variety of platforms available day in day out has become, to many Sierra Leoneans what water is to the survival of the human race.
Walter Lippmann argued many years ago that “the only feeling that anyone can have about an event he does not experience is the feeling aroused by his mental image of the event.” I suggest to you that this feeling is aroused by the issues we select as news and the ways in which we approach those stories when we report them.
In one of its recent publications the Awoko Newspaper said it was very concerned that media practitioners especially those in radio have been accused of preaching hate messages and stoking the fires of conflict in Sierra Leone.
Journalists have to be extremely careful now more than ever before about what we do, say or write in our capacities as information gatekeepers and agenda setters.
The paper continues and I quote “We saw for ourselves what happened during the war when people were called upon [by or through the media] to come out into the streets and attack others. We saw howcalls to stand up against the rebels ended up in deaths which were later blamed on the media messages.
Just four years ago during the last election we saw how close this country came to full blown conflict when some radio stations started calling on people to do the work of security officials.”
Again, I am inclined to think that the level of pessimism expressed here is a little over the top. But we should understand why for Sierra Leone anything that appears to move us an inch towards conflict is quickly shouted down.
After the 2007 elections, Awoko newspaper published the map of Sierra Leone, inserted RED in areas that voted APC and Green in SLPP areas. There were small patches of ORANGE indicating PMDC but there was a line right across the country indicating that Sierra Leone is politically divided, very deeply indeed. For many Sierra Leoneans that line also represents TRIBALISM, MARGINALISATION, LACK OF OPPORTUNITY, DENIAL OF BASIC RIGHTS AND DEVELOPMENTS.
We can have academic arguments about whether they are right but the issue on ground is: this is what they believe and that has informed the messages they are passing on to the media which become the raw material to work with.
I am sure almost everybody in this audience has heard something about the infamous role of the media in the Rwandan killings. Much of the responsibility for the genocide in Rwanda was put on the shoulders of the media. Radio Mille Collines was the hub around which the anti-Tutsi propaganda project was organized.
Yes only a few journalists were tried and imprisoned for the consequences of their work but the truth is; the whole media in that country was on trial and African Media in general is on trial today otherwise we wouldn’t be here about eight months to elections discussing the same issues today.
The trial chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda in their ruling in the case brought against Journalist Ferdinand Nahimana of Radio Milles Collines said among other things “… you were fully aware of the power of words, and you used the radio – the medium of communication with the widest public reach – to disseminate hatred and violence…Without a firearm, machete or any physical weapon, you caused the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians…”
The chamber also told the other Journalist Hassan Ngeze”…you were in a position to inform the public and shape public opinion towards achieving democracy and peace for all Rwandans. Instead of using the media to promote human rights, you used it to attack and destroy human rights…you did not respect the responsibility that comes with freedom. You abused the trust of the public by using your newspaper to instigate genocide…”
Please note that the trial chamber raised the question of the trust of the public being betrayed by the media. It is for this audience to decide if the trust we put in our media and the privileges society affords media workers have been betrayed or not. It probably isn’t a yes or no answer; we could decide to have a national conversation on this issue.
I am however afraid that we aren’t having any serious national conversation because credible people, with high integrity have simply withdrawn from the centre because of the unashamedly partisan and intemperate language of whatever conversation is taking place now to save their reputation and that of their families in the eyes of a gullible public. Those who have managed to get stuck in are simply being bullied by the dominant voices in a polarized media landscape, where only the fittest of the fittest have survived.
A pluralistic and accountable media industry is an indispensable part of building democracy and the voices of hate can only be neutralized if they are confronted with a variety of alternative points of view.
In Kenya and Ivory Coast the media were reprimanded for their role in election violence that killed people and destroyed property. As recently as the last elections in neighbouring Liberia, three media institutions were found guilty of inciting violence and causing deaths of innocent people.
The criminal prosecution and conviction of the journalists was immensely important. It established the principle of the accountability of journalists for the consequences of what they publish and broadcast.
The influence of media content on public behaviour has been a subject for endless and inconclusive academic study over decades. We cannot say with any certainty whether, for example, violent television programmes will pre-dispose children to behave violently. Yet many serious commentators have concluded with certainty that the Rwandan radio broadcasts incited genocide.
Lack of democratic control over a strength.
The important point to make however is that as technology improves and media continues to occupy or influence people’s lives and governance decisions, I suggest that, newspapers, radio and television are becoming very dangerous tools to play with. If journalists misuse them and hence create mayhem in society, the journalists themselves become causalities of their indiscretion along with the rest of society.
Today, out of fear that certain people, including journalists could misuse their newspapers, radios and even the only TV station ahead and during the 2012 elections, people are calling on the International Criminal Court (ICC), to establish a presence in Sierra Leone. If it’s only about the media, I am afraid we must look for local solutions.
That means the Independent Media Commission must be empowered enough to truly play its role as an Independent Media Regulator. As we speak, crucial amendments to the IMC act, put forward more than a year ago are still with Law Officers Department.
What we have is an IMC from which much is expected but which can only deliver a few things, given the position of its powers, an IMC that is daily being attacked from unusual quarters – meaning the journalists themselves just because they disagree with some IMC rulings. Some have even done ad-hominen attacks on the personality of the Commissioners.
IMC complaints adjudications and resolution processes are open and the rulings are available but colleagues ignore the fine arts of media ethics and bring extraneous political matters into the debate with the sole motive of misleading a gullible public about the integrity of people on the IMC board. How far that has affected public respectability for the IMC is for us to judge.
Again, we can freely discuss what kind of media regulatory mechanism we want in Sierra Leone. They are doing that in the UK now following the horrendous phone-hacking scandals.
I have managed, in the time available to me to put a few ideas out there that the audience here can look at. I suspect however that we shall be talking about these issues for a long time to come so there is no harm starting now.
Editor’s Note:This paper was delivered at a Dialogue Forum with the Media, Policy-Makers and other Stakeholders on Violent-Free Elections: Towards the Elimination of Gender-Based Violence. The occasion marked the celebration of International Women’s Day Celebrations in Freetown with the theme: Empowering Girls and Women for an Inspiring Future 6TH March 2012